Kerala believes in backing its cricketers no matter what. Earlier this month, when Sanju Samson got dropped from the Ranji Trophy side on charges of indiscipline, a very popular news channel ran a show titled ‘Sanjuvine Vetayadunetharu’, loosely translated as ‘Who is Hunting Down Sanju?
It was on loop, telecast at least five times a day. After S Sreesanth, now a popular showbiz star, forgiven for his spot-fixing taint, Sanju was the sport-crazy state’s big hope. There was a time, when it was felt, more so in Kerala, that Sanju would take MS Dhoni’s place in the national team behind the stumps. Now, tempers were flying, and Kerala Cricket Association was the clear target on the TV show with lots of drama and intrigue.
Sanju’s father Vishwanath breaks down while asking why his son is being punished for smashing his own bat on his own kit. “If you (people) think this is a crime then punish my boy,” Vishwanath says as he tries to hold back tears. The sight of a weeping, helpless father, triggers more emotional outburst. Panelists take liberties with facts. One angry voice says KCA president TC Mathew has taken money from MS Dhoni to keep out Sanju from the national team, another wants the people to revolt against the ‘KCA Mafia’. And of course, there are calls for the chief minister to step in.
From the TV studio’s din, sketchy details of the case emerge. It is only after talking to several others that a sequence of events become clear. Last month Sanju, after yet another Ranji Trophy batting failure, smashed his bat to the floor in the Brabourne Stadium dressing room. Later, he would leave the stadium without informing the team management. In the next game too, runs would desert him. It is said there is a buzz in the team that Sanju might get dropped. Meanwhile, the wicketkeeper’s longstanding knee injury would play up. He would want to take a break and go to the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. KCA didn’t agree, it’s president would get an angry call from Sanju’s father.
There are several versions of this story, depending on on who you are talking to. There’s one KCA version and then there’s a pro-Sanju version that everyone in Kerala wants to believe.
For a neutral observer, in Indian cricket’s post-IPL churning, this happens to be the story of a youngster saddled with a burden of expectations, a father frustrated by the the slow progress of his son’s career, and fans not coming to terms with the fact that T20 success doesn’t always translate into Ranji success.
A week back when Kerala was playing its last league match of the Ranji Trophy season against Services at the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi, Sanju was undergoing rehabilitation for a meniscus injury on his left knee at the NCA. If things go as per plan, the talented wicketkeeper should be back on his feet in less than a month. The trauma of the 2016 Ranji season, though, will take more than a month to heal.
The last straw was his second innings duck against Goa at the Brabourne stadium. His average before this innings was 24.71 this season. That’s when the 22-year-old, who never had any discipline issues, snapped. The smashing of the bat was maybe his first public expression of frustration.
It is learnt that Sanju left the stadium while the match was in progress. By some accounts, he was not reachable till late in the evening and well after the day’s play was over. In one version, which KCA officials narrate, he spend the day on the Marine Drive promenade just across the road. There are also reports that he had only ventured as far as the hotel room, a stone’s throw away from the stadium, and locked himself in.
Whichever story one wants to believe, the exasperation of the 22-year-old cricketer – one who has experienced the highs of the IPL, played a T20 International, represented India A and repeatedly hailed as an ‘India prospect’ – should have seen his mentors, and even KCA officials, make the talented young cricketer sit down and have a heart-to-heart chat with him.
Meanwhile, KCA asked him to face a four-member committee for ‘breaching the code of conduct.’ Sanju has already apologised to the KCA in a letter and would meet the four-member panel on Thursday. When he talks about his predicament on the field, he sounds like a student who has prepared well for an exam but is unable to reproduce the answers when given the question paper.
“I would say I am disappointed because I am not scoring runs but at the same time I am not more worried than I should be. I am doing everything I can to try and score runs. I have been training hard and batting well but somehow I am getting that one ball that gets me out. I am comfortable out in the middle but then I get out. I am not getting the results I desire and if you ask me why, I don’t have an answer,” Sanju says.
An example of losing his wicket against the run of play is his caught-and-bowled dismissal by Chhattisgarh left-arm spinner Sumit Ruikar when he was on 41 off just 37 balls – 36 of those runs coming in boundaries.
According to the batsman, in four of his innings this season he was out to ‘good deliveries’ while on two occasions he was dismissed when he stepped on the gas as the team was looking for an early declaration.
A glance at his First-Class statistics this season shows a bright start – 154 in the season opener against Jammu and Kashmir. But this was followed by a string of low scores with the next highest being 47. Prior to the Ranji Trophy, Sanju scored two half-centuries in the Quadrangular one-day Series in Australia. The runs made ‘away’ from home and a century in Kerala’s first Ranji Trophy game should have put Sanju on a firm footing.
A similar trend occurred last season. In the Ranji Trophy opener against Jammu and Kashmir, Sanju made 101, his first and only century in the tournament in 2015-2016. His next best score was 28.
Sandwiched between the domestic seasons was the Indian Premier League, a tournament where he made a name for himself three years ago. His returns were 291 runs in 14 innings for the Delhi Daredevils. By no measure does this tally of runs over the past year or so point to an alarming decline, yet what will go against Sanju is the progress others have made since.
One of his teammates during the ninth edition of the IPL was Rishabh Pant. The 19-year-old Delhi batsman scored much less in the T20 tournament but seven months on, the wicketkeeper-batsman is being talked about as an ‘India prospect’ — a tag used to describe Samson too — after a breakthrough Ranji Trophy season (972 runs, 4 centuries).
Biju George, Samson’s longtime coach, juxtaposes the current form of the two young wicketkeeper-batsmen to drive home the point of the need to have a safety net in place for young cricketers when things are not going their way.
“Pant is having a great season and everything is going well for him. God forbid but if he goes through a rough patch, like Sanju is going through now, is there a mentor in the team set-up to whom he can turn to for guidance? Eventually, the opposition will start to figure out where to bowl to you and that is when the challenge starts. It is vital that a reliable mentor is around to provide the right guidance when there is a dip in form. In Sanju’s case, there may be something in the team set-up which is distracting him or preventing him from performing to his potential,” George says.
The coach, part of the backroom staff of the Under-19 World Cup team which participated in the 2014 edition, gives the examples of Sarfaraz Khan and captain Vijay Zol to highlight how making the transition from the junior to the senior level is not a cakewalk.
“Sarfaraz has had to change teams (Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh) but is still trying to find his feet while Zol has not been a regular for his state,” George says.
How Sanju regroups after recovering from injury will be a test of his character, the coach believes. “Sanju must reassess himself and may be even take a break, which will do him a world of good. He is a class player and still very young so it is not like he will miss out on anything.”
Another suggestion from George, who trains Sanju during the off-season, is to approach a good batting coach. “Someone with a fresh eye may spot something which Sanju needs to change or modify. I have been training him over the years so there is a possibility that I may not notice it,” George says.
One such person is Rahul Dravid, the Delhi Daredevils and India A coach. Sanju plays for both these teams and this mentorship can be traced back to their days at Rajasthan Royals.
Sanju says he hasn’t reached out to the India A coach yet, but has fallen back on his words. “At times, you can give your 100 per cent and do everything right and in earnest but you may not be able to score runs. You can do only what you can control,” Samson recalls.
Kerala coach Tinu Yohannan, a former Test pacer and Kerala’s first-ever cricket superstar, can certainly play the mentor. Yohannan doesn’t want to speak on the issue as he feels that it wouldn’t help anybody, but only escalate matters. It’s an emotive issue, any utterance will make you pro-KCA or pro-Sanju.
Yohannan did play the peacemaker. It is learnt that after the Goa game, he did advise the youngster that he was a role model and needed to hold it together when the going got tough. Sanju played the next game against Andhra.
It is after this game that the KCA decided that Sanju must be pulled up. Sanju insisted on being released from the team ahead of the match against Tripura in Cuttack in order to begin rehabilitation of his left knee, an injury he was carrying through the season. The association felt that Sanju got wind of the possibility that he was going to be benched for the match against Tripura and didn’t want to face the embarrassment of having to watch from the sidelines or carry drinks.
The KCA declined Sanju’s request because officials believed he was throwing a tantrum. The officials also felt Sanju had been given enough elbow room when he decided not to keep wickets earlier in the season (to reduce the load on his knee) and play as a batsman.
The subsequent conversation between the player’s father Vishwanath and Mathew didn’t end well and the association decided to throw the rule book at Sanju. KCA president Mathew denies that the association has an axe to grind with the player but admits things had reached a boil. “We have always supported him, right from the time he was picked for Ranji Trophy as a 15-year-old. But now Sanju needs to realise that if he wants to play for India, he can only do that by scoring runs consistently. People around him need to also get that message,” Mathew says.
Sanju is waiting for the whole issue to blow over and for his knee to recover. “I believe that everything happens for the good. Even this break may prove to be a blessing. Perhaps, if I had faced failure earlier I would have been better prepared to handle it, but now I will only learn from this experience and strive towards becoming the best player I can be.”